Everybody who starts writing has some particular skill or skill that comes more naturally to them than others. Call it a talent, if you want. Some people are good at dialogue. Some create amazing characters with seemingly no effort. Some can create intricate plots. Whatever your strength is with a writer, there are certain areas you aren’t as good at, or have to work at. Those are easy to spot when you’re first starting out. The first areas you learn to fix. So you roll along for a while thinking you’re a pretty good writer, then you hit a snag.
You realize that the things you thought you were good at still need improvement. Only, because you’ve always been good at them, you don’t know how to fix it.
So you turn to the books. I have a love/hate relationship with writing books. I love when you find one of the ones that just sticks with you and sings to you. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft
is one of those for me. Strictly speaking, that’s not a ‘how-to’ sort of book, but the way he describes his approach to writing has stuck with me through the years and resonates with how I approach my own work. I love that. That’s like finding someone who pats you on the shoulder and goes “I know, I do that too.”
I hate finding books that describe a process that is totally foreign to me. Especially when I realize they’re talking about something I thought I was always good at, and I am doing unconsciously (often on a sub-par level). Those are the ones that I argue with, whine about, and ultimately are the ones that make me a better writer.
There are two books I’ve read in the past year that have been game-changers for me. The first is Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Story is a big book, and a difficult read, but is 100% worth it. I have always thought of myself as a decent storyteller, but reading McKee made me aware of how to make a story work, every time, and consciously. I’ve stopped relying as much on my instincts alone. My instincts are good, but my instincts plus a knowledge of good story structure is better. As a result, revisions are much less painful, because I’m getting more right the first time.
One of the reasons this book took me so long to read was that I bounced hard off it at first. I was reluctant to try and take my beautiful, instinctual, organic writing process and try to shoehorn it into a three-act structure. How dull, who would read it?! Until I tried it on one book, As Lost as I Get, and not only was the plotting easier, the end result was a more cohesive, better paced story. I learned that there’s a difference between structure and formula, and that structure didn’t mean predictable.
The other book I just finished, having read it in a single sitting: GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. Characterization was another area I thought I had down cold–until suddenly I didn’t. GMC is a concise exploration of how to create characters that work, and work for you–they bring along their own plots! Working on instinct, I’d often create characters with muddy goals, or too many goals to reasonably deal with in a book, and the end result showed. Now I’m hoping to use Dixon’s methods to create stronger characters with a clearer picture of what they want at any given time, and who they’re in conflict with.
The two experiences are enough to make me start to take a closer look under the hood at my writing. What else am I doing instinctively? How can I improve on my instincts? Looking forward to finding out.
What about you? What do you do instinctively as a writer? How could looking closer make it better?